Following seas (sailing with the waves coming from behind) means getting beaten badly
Six a.m., it’s still dark and I’m at the helm steering Capri out of Nazare harbor. We’re going slowly because the both the harbor and the sea outside is veiled in heavy fog. So heavy that I’m having to follow our “track” on the chartplotter from coming in, in order to get out.
Just outside the harbor the fog rolls in on us like the proverbial pea soup. We literally can’t see a thing – barely the front end of the boat. Why are we out in this? Wy didn’t we just stay in the harbor and have a nap and a glass of wine? The problem is that this will not dissipate. Despite having learned on all our meteorology courses that the sun and wind will dissipate the fog – this truism apparently doesn’t count here on the Spanish/Portuguese coasts. The local meteorologists say that it is because the Atlantic is a couple of degrees warmer than usual. When this warm air meets the relatively cooler air from the land – the fog appears and just stays. A truly thick blanket 60-70nm deep all along the coast.
We both keep a sharp lookout through what we can see in the fog to try to spot the fishing buoys. We got caught in a fishing net a couple of days ago, fortunately it happen in daylight and we were able to back our way free using the engine. DAMNED GOOD THING IT DIDN’T HAPPEN AT NIGHT!
It is morning but still dar as n ight. Suddenly I see something flimmering right in front of Capri’s bow to starboard. Is it a reflection of our navigation lights in the wavetops? NO! It’s a bloody fishing buoy, I yell and immediately put our engine in neutral, stopping the propeller, then switch off the autopilot and attempt to steer around it. But the buoy disappears under Capri and I can’t see it come up behind us. We start losing speed and now we have to face facts – we’re caught again. Carsten takes sover the helm and tries to back Capri out – hoping that the buoy and lines are “only” caught on the keels and we’ll be able to back ourselves free. That hope soon dies as Capri continues to back even when Carsten puts the gear in forward. Apparently the lines are wrapped around our propeller and just keep winding themselves around no matter which direction we try to go.
Shit. Shit. Shit. I near tears and feel it is my fault – I was at the helm. We’re stuck and there is no alternative. One of us has to go under the boat and cut us free. OK we’re both certified equipment on board, but “unfortunately” I don’t have the strength to hold on to Capri with one hand while cutting us free with the other – remember we’re in 2 meter high swells. So of course I’m really “sorry” I have to let Carsten do this job.
We drop anchor at 70 meters of water. Why drop anchor? Because we don’t know what will happen when we cut ourselves free – perhaps we won’t be able to get the propeller completely free or perhaps the propeller or shaft are bent and we can’t use our engine – with the anchor down – we’ll be able to stay here. If the propeller or shaft are damaged we might end up drifting into the shoals and that would mena major damage to Capri. Our Mantus drops 70 meters and immediately grabs the bottom – we play out all 100 meters of chain we have on board and hope it all holds.
I’m truly not happy with the situation. Soon Carsten has gone over the side and I’ll be alone in the cockpit on a boat that is anchored out in the middle of nowhere in the fog. There is no way for anyone to see us before it is too late and they sail into us.
I tell Carsten that we have to send out a SECURITE on the VHF before he goes down. A SECURITE is a message to all ships to be aware of a potentially dangerous situation – here, we’re telling everyone that there is a boat at anchored in such and such a position and to make sure they sail around us.
Carsten goes below and sends the SECURITE. He’s barely finished sending it before the Portuguese Coast Guard call us – do we need help? No thanks – we’ll see if we can go it alone. Immediately thereafter the Maritime Police call asking if we need help and how many on board, is anyone injured etc. Again – no thanks, we’re going to try to get lose ourselves. The Maritime Police tell us to keep channel 67 open and they’ll be listening for us if we decide we need help. Nice to know that help is available if we need it. We also say “no thank you” to the professional diver who called to see if we needed help – he was calling because he could “smell money”.
Carsten’s got his wetsuit on and is busy donning his flippers and goggles. He’s also putting on an old bicycle helmet he brought along just for this. With the 2 meter high waves, Capri is bobbing up and down and her stern is being lifted high out of the water. When Carsten is below, he’ll get the boat crashing down on his head. So the helmet is to protect him from being knocked unconscious. He crawls across our Aries windvane, replete with flippers, which make it very difficult. I can see him tensing up as he goes under in the cold water. I’ve insisted, before he went down that he wave 2 lifelines attached so I can haul him up if anything happens or he starts drifting away from Capri faster than he can swim back, since I can’t sail after him. Carsten dives under Capri but comes up right away again and says, “Fuck, the propeller is completely wrapped in rope – I’m going to need to put on my tanks”. This is definitely not going to be any easier for him with a 12 kilo airtank and a BCD when he has to crawl over the windvane.
I’m now completely alone on Capri, Carsten has gone under water and I’m praying that this will not be as difficult for us to cut ourselves free as it sounds. I’m also praying it won’t take hours and hours. I keep looking down around Capri and am relieved when I see Carsten’s flippers in the water. We’ve agreed that he will come up every 5 minutes and give me a status report, but of corse he’s forgotten all about that as he concentrates on the job at hand. He’s been down there for 15 minutes now and I can’t see his flippers anymore – has he fainted? Should I haul him up? Suddenly I see bits of rope floating up to the surface and I realize that he is still alive down there and cutting us free.
After 20 minutes he surfaces, climbs aboard and says, “we’re free, but I cut my little finger”. I run below and come up with a band-aid. He looks at it and says “Jesus Christ, I cut myself all the way inot the bone – the damn finger is bleeding like an open faucet, a god damned band-aid is not enough – I thought you were a registered nurse for christ’s sake”. (yes – sometimes we’re not completely polite with each other aboard Capri). I look at the deep cut and have to admit he’s right. It doesn’t look good and I’m wondering if I’ll need to sew it together first before putting a bandage on. I grab a teatowel and wrap it around his finger and tell him to clamp down hard on it while I get the first aid kit.
I run below to get some “tools” only to discover that Carsten has put them all the way at the back of our aft cabin behind all the big boxes. Shit! He found an empty spot here when he took the windvane out and mounted it. This means they are all the way in the back end of the boat – not the smartest decision ever made. It takes a while for me to dig out the first aid boxes and all my “tools of the trade”
In the midst of my “repairing” Carsten, the Marine Police call us again on the VH and want to know how it’s going? We can tell them that we’ve cut ourselves free, but we still have to test the engine, shaft and propeller before we know if we are seaworthy and can cancel the Securite’. I don’t tell them that we have a badly injured man on board and that I might have to amputate J
Later, when we are in the next harbour, Carsten gets a lot of praise from the Marine Police. They tell him that almost no one gets free themselves. Normally a diver comes out, cuts the line to the net and then the boat is towed into a harbor, lifted out of the water and the rope cut off the propeller. Needless to say – this is very expensive so Carsten is my absolute SUPERMAN today. But I’ll also give myself a little praise. I managed to bandage his finger so well that he didn’t get an infection, has retained the full movement of the finger and only has a small scar. So next time he better not yell at me or he can do the job himself.
Unfortunately this wasn’t to be our last meeting with fishing buoys before leaving European waters. We left Cascais (Lisbon) I completely clear weather bound for Madeira. And Shit! 5 nm out we meet a white wall of fog and we’re still in an area where there are a lot of buoys. We’re carrying full sail and when we’re heeling like this it is even more difficult to see what is in front of Capri. We each take a side and keep a sharpened lookout. We’re almost clear of the fishing area when I see a buoy emerge from the fog and disappear under Capri. I yell to Carsten to turn to starboard but it is too late. We wait anxiously but the buoy doesn’t reappear behind Capri. Shit, shit , shit! Caught again for the 4th time. I’m sure you all think we must sail with a blindfold on – but we don’t we’re just unlucky. We drop the sails and Capri starts gliding backwards and suddenly – Whoops! Here comes the buoy up along ´side Capri – it was “only” caught on the keel. We let it drift at least 100 meters away before we set our sails and get back on course for Madeira.
Well – we didn’t make it to Madeira. As you’ve read in Carsten’s tale, we turned towards Lanzarote, the northernmost of the Canaries after having sailed upwind for 2 straight days. We regret missing Madeira, but those islands will have to wait for another time. When that is said – it is great to have the freedom to change directions and destination at your whim and sail on a course that is more comfortable. It wasn’t as comfortable as we’d thought though. More about that later, first I talk about how not all days on the ocean are happy-go-lucky sunshine and no worries. Here you’ll get my truthful and honest version – the one you rarely read about in cruising books.
Carsten suggested that for this trip we should try 6 hour watches during the evening/night meaning 8 p.m. to 2a.m. and 2 a.m. to 8 a.m. The sun set at 9 p.m. and rises at 7:30 a.m. I’m sitting on my third watch from 2 to 8 a.m. and am feeling that 6 hours is a very long time. The challenge isn’t staying awake, although admittedly the last hour is very, very long, but I feel it si many hours to be alone in the cockpit carrying the full responsibility for the boat. Especially if the weather is hard – it wears on my psychic and I get tired. I’m beginning to feel that the dogwatches are a burden and something that just needs to gotten through. I haven’t felt that way before and decide that we need to discuss this in the morning. Perhaps we should try 5 hour watches? Otherwise we need to go back to 4 hours on – 4 hours off.
It’s 7 o’clock and I exhausted. I’ve spent the past couple of hours going over all the things we need to do, repair or check on Lanzarote. My list has 8 items. I’m not only irritated but tired of all these repairs and things that don’t function correctly. The entire journey we’ve not had the weather with us – rather it ahs constantly been against us. I’m beginning to feel insecure and ask myself if we are really competent to sail across oceans. Is Capri capable of making the crossing? The thoughts come unbidden and stay with me.
Our engine is still not charging our batteries, despite the electrician in Viggo checking our system. We waited 2 weeks for a spare part from the US and then he said it wasn’t necessary to install it – the one we had worked just fine. This morning, though, I can see that our batteries are down to 50% and will be charged by our solar panels during the day. Dawn breaks and I can see that the skies are covered by low-hanging stratus clouds, meaning no sun. I’m worried because if the sun doesn’t come out then the batteries will not get fully charged.
Now what’s happening? The wind disappears and the sails are flapping. Out to starboard I can see a dark cloud approaching. Come on Capri – get your ass moving – I don’t want to get wet. While I’m down below putting on my foulies, the wind comes – but it has turned 180 degrees. I begin setting the sails for a broad reach, when the rain hits. Shit, shit, I’m in the middle of a squall, pissing wet and can’t get the main set. Every time I taut up on the boombrake, I end up bringing the sail too far in. I’m cursing like a seaman when I hear Carsten from down below in the seabunk – “Hmm, is it raining?”, and I answer – “you’re god damned right it’s raining and you can get your ass up here and help me with this mainsail.” The problem with the boombrake is that Carsten has tightened it up by the boom, but not told me – he has only given me instructions on how to adjust it down by the cockpit. He’s fool for not telling me and he deserves to be hauled out of a nice dry warm seabunk – even though he is off watch.
We get the sails right and I explain the battery situation to Carsten. He looks concerned and says that if we don’t get some sunshine soon we’ll have a problem- “we’ll need to conserve our electricity so we should shut off the chartplotter and the autopilot – we’ll have to manually steer during the daytime.” I agree – but what happens to me now?
Tears are running down my cheeks. I’m standing at the helm crying and feeling like everything is hopeless. Carsten is just as surprised at my reaction as I am, but I can’t stop the tears. Carsten comes over, puts his arms around me and comforts me, saying “Vinni, don’t worry – everything will be all right”. I continue to cry and say “ I’m not giving up but I need to let my emotions out”.
We’re still unable to fetch gribfile (weather reports) via our shortwave radio or our sat phone. We can’t continue to call Tonni and ask him for a weather report so I suggest that before we shutdown the chartplotter that we call the freighter we can see on the plotter on our VHF and ask him for a weather forecast. Which we do. And get good news – the weather will clear during the morning and the freighter wishes us a continued good journey. When the sun comes out and the solar is busy charging at full power, we start up the autopilot, but not the chartplotter. We still need to conserve our electricity.
The wind comes back and this time on a broad reach, blowing 25 knots, so we’re sailing with the wind and with the waves at our back. I still wonder that 25 knots can raise waves 4-5 meters (13-16 feet) out here where the waters are 3-4 kilometers deep. Carsten is below sleeping. I have only the genua (foresail) up and we’re still flying along at 8-9 knots. All the while, the waves are tossing Capri in every which direction. If only the waves would come from one direction but the seas are confused and the waves are popping up from everywhere. Capri is yawing constantly and in danger of ending up crossways in the waves and broaching. I turn her and try to get the wind more directly in from the back. She responds well and yaws less – and I’m impressed that she can run at 8 knots with the wind directly from the rear and only her genua set.
I turn and look backwards, hoping to see the waves subsiding, but no – instead one of the large ones rolls in, presses itself under Capri’s stern and Capri now rises and starts surfing the wave.
Uuuuhhh, why are my feet warm? I look down only to find that I’m standing in water to my ankles – the cockpit is full and here I was thinking only my ass was going to get wet from sitting on the wet bench. The wave has broken in over the port side and now we’re in one big Jacuzzi. The next 1 and a half days we’ll be clipped in with our lifelines 24 hours a day. We’ll need to constantly be hanging on to the boat with one hand and setting a foot up against something to wedge ourselves in. Not very comfortable and unbelievably tiring, especially at night when you can see nothing, only feel Capri’s movement and hear the sounds of the waves and wind whistling through the rigging. Food has become anything that can be eaten with one hand. Even lying in the seabunk requires holding on.
After 4 ½ days sailing, I can yell “Land Ho!”. A big smile breaks out on carsten face. Far out in the mist I can see Lanzarote and north of it the little island Gracious. Wonderful to see land again, especially since we haven’t used out chartplotter the last 3 days, but sailed by dead reckoning only. Since I’ve been used to having a chartplotter, I’m more than a little nervous about having to sail using only a large scale sea chart and dead reckoning. We didn’t bring any charts of Lanzarote with us since we didn’t expect to come here.
We get in lee of the land as we get further down along the island and I have my best and calmest dogwatch since we left Denmark. And just to add some icing to the cake – I have a full moon to sail by. 5:30 am we dock in Puerto do Calero. While Carsten is filling out forms with the watchman I’m standing enjoying the view out over a picture perfect volcanic island under an full moon. I regret not having the sense to take a picture, but I was too relieved at arriving here safely to think about that.
760nm id 5 days – our longest non-stop sail yet.
We haven’t been able to get our windvane to function properly yet – we had desperate need of it on this trip. Our boat electrician on Lanzarote – a true “boat bum” in the best sense of the word sailed out with us a Sunday afternoon and helped us adjust it. And YES – it works.
We’re now on our way to Tenerife and the windvane will get its first real test. Now what? Does the damn thing work or doesn’t it? Carsten pulls on one of the lines to make Capri turn and she turns the wrong way – I suggest that perhaps he should pull on the other line and he gets truly irritated at my “back seat driving” and claims he needs some quiet to think. Now my patience is at an end because the genua has backed and if the boombrake hadn’t been tighten hard we would have gybed the mainsail.
I tell him I was practical enough to ask Jan, the electrician when he was on board – which line I should pull to make the boat go to starboard and he said “why you pull on the line to starboard”. I mean – how hard can it be? Which I then demonstrate for the skipper and he gets even more pissed and goes below and sleeps for 3 hours.
I experience our best sail to date – 10-12 knots on a reach and Capri flies at 8 knots while the windvane steers her I long graceful S curves on 2 meter high Atlantic swells. If this is Atlantic sailing – yep I’m gonna enjoy it.
Carsten gets up at dinner time, happily in a much better mood. I tell him about the wonderful sailing and we decide not to reef the sails for the night like we usually do. We both experience a fantastic watch under a carpet of stars that fill the sky.
One little snake in paradise, however. At 1:15 Carsten comes below an shines the flashlight on the clock to see what time it is (read – is it time for me to turn out and him to turn in). Unfortunately he has another 45 minutes to go, so with a sigh he climbs back topside. Meanwhile I’m lying as still as a mouse, so he doesn’t get any ideas about my getting up early. 15 minutes later, I decide that since I am awake and 6 hours is a very long watch that I might as well get up and relieve him. I can see Carsten sitting under the sprayhood and stick my head up the hatch to ask him how things are, how cold is it and how many clothes should I put on – but nobody answers.
His head is hanging down on his chest and he’s sleeping like a baby. Meanwhile we’re passing Gran Canary Island’s northernmost point, an area filled with reefs and rocks. I jump into my foulies to take over. Carsten is both shocked and embarrassed that he fell asleep and we agree that from now on we can’t sit under the sprayhood. We get too comfortable under there. We’ll just have to sit at the helm. And we agree again that if we’re feeling tired we should wake the other person to take over.
No shame in that.
After 170nm and 1.5 days we reach the southern end of Tenerife and dock in a modern harbor that just happens to have a golf course. Not that we chose the harbour because of that but because it was at the southern tip and therefore would make it easy for us to sail to La Gomera. But we never got to La Gomera. There was a huge regatta taking place and the harbours were all filled up for the following week. The following week the weather would have been against us so we decided to skip La Gomera this trip and sail directly to Las Palmas before the nasty weather set in. We’ll get 3 weeks in Las Palmas – but that’s just the way it is.
We have an undramatic and easy trip back to Las Palmas. Full sails and Capri made 7 knots so we arrived in Las Palmas before dark, which make finding our way around in that huge harbor a bit easier.
So now we have lots of time to prepared Capri for the big trip over the “pond”. We have 32 points on our “wailing wall”. At the end of the first week we’ve gotten that down to only 1 point – downloading gribfiles on our sat phone. Mike, an American living in Las Palmas fixed this for us before we left . Our last week in Las Palmas is spent going to various functions of the ARC or playing tourist.
On Lanzartoe, Tenerife and now Gran Canaria we rented cars and driven round the island and had fantastic nature experiences.
The weather has still been against us. On Lanzarote, where it literally never rains – ever, they had 2 days of rain because Vinni and Carsten stopped by. On Tenerife it was overcast the entire 2 weeks we were there. In Las Palmas the first few days were nice (we were working inside the boat on all the items on our “wiling wall”, but when we finished that and were ready to be outside – it became cloudy and rained for a couple of days.
I’m wondering what the weather holds in store for us on our crossing – will we find the trade winds?